No detail spared: ‘Warhol’ expands on the life of the Pop Art icon

Biographer Blake Gopnik mines the archives of the famously self-involved, and cannily entrepreneurial, painter of soup cans and Hollywood stars.

Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers
“Warhol” by Blake Gopnik, Ecco, 976 pp.

Pop artist Andy Warhol could be called a poet of excess. As a painter, he was drawn to mass-produced goods such as cans of Campbell’s soup (from which sprang a series of 32 silk-screen paintings) or haunting images of Marilyn Monroe (which he rendered in a combination of artificially saturated colors and stark black-and-white in another silk-screen series).

As a filmmaker, Warhol was no less immoderate, creating, for example, both an eight-hour reverie on the Empire State Building, “Empire” (1964), and a split-screen extravaganza depicting the assorted nonconformists in his orbit in “Chelsea Girls” (1966). Even Warhol’s diaries, which were published in 1989, burst at the seams with details, trivia, and extreme self-centeredness.

Blake Gopnik’s staggeringly thorough biography “Warhol” examines the artist in granular detail without losing the sweep of his story. Gopnik relates Warhol’s advancement from the child of a working-class family in Pittsburgh to a successful commercial artist in New York to an avant-garde icon and entrepreneur – but also adds to, and frequently corrects, the record.

For example, in writing about the boy born as Andrew Warhola in 1928, Gopnik emphasizes that the products he would later memorialize in his art were likely absent from his household. “His actual childhood didn’t involve supermarket tuna, cans of Campbell’s Soup or any of the other shiny brands of Eisenhower America that Warhol later showed in his art – before World War II, those were still products targeted at the elites,” Gopnik writes.

Gopnik claims that Warhol was not a true believer in his “superstars,” but was parodying a society that used such accolades. Warhol was “reveling in the absurdity of the mismatch between who his followers really were and the title he gave them,” Gopnik writes. He also contradicts the notion of the artist’s apparent apathy when it came to politics. Warhol contributed “quiet but consistent support” to left-wing causes. 

Gopnik, an art critic, explains that by reproducing the “Mona Lisa,” the artist was “demonstrating how emptied out she’d become through ubiquity.” Gopnik perceives that Warhol was standing aloof from the people and things he depicted. “For Pop to do important work, as art, it had to have a decent distance from the popular culture it was riffing on,” he writes. 

Admittedly, some readers will tire of descriptions of seemingly every endeavor Warhol lent his name to, and agree with the statement that “the primary creation of Andy Warhol is Andy Warhol himself.”  

Admirers of Warhol will rejoice at this book, which does not gloss over the calamities in his personal life – including an attempted murder by Valerie Solanas that brought him close to death in 1968 – and which celebrates the legacy of Warhol’s art. Even those with a casual interest in the artist are likely to find themselves enthralled.

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